Friday, April 03, 2009

I Could Have Had the Best Mentor. . .

Now that I'm retired I have time to reflect on those with whom I've been in contact who could have changed my life had my decision at the time been opposite. I seem to have floated through life making a few bad ones. Here's one example.

Fresh out of college I took a summer job with a suburban newspaper. My goal was to teach a few years and then to enroll in journalism school. My new position was to work with the owner and his wife. Marlene covered the business side and dipped into the social scene with her reporting. When I was hired I reported just about every angle until Sam decided I could write features. I interviewed the kid who won a monkey, the award-winning rose grower, the prim antique collector, the college trekker. Then I began to cover the evening parties with a photographer, getting names of the posed. That was par for the course, I suspected. I had spent four years writing for a community college newspaper, covering every aspect of putting out a papers except printing.

One day an imposing lady wearing a hat whose brim was as wide as an umbrella and as springlike as daffodils entered the doorway. She wanted to see Sam. Later Sam exclaimed she was the owner of two small newspapers. Her name was Mrs. Smith. Uh, yea, Mrs. Smith in disguise I said to myself.

However, she came in often, always sporting a different wide-brimmed hat. I thought by then that she was interested in buying Sam's newspaper. In early August I received a letter from her asking me to join her staff in Lexington, just north of Jackson. That request sent me into the struggle of "Should I or Should I Not?" Already I was preparing to teach in a Delta school. I had learned in college -- YOU DON'T BREAK CONTRACTS. Here was my opportunity to work full time at what I truly loved. I leaned towards staying with my contract, regretfully. By the following year I was ready togive my body a hundred lashes for the mistake.

Little did I know Hazel Brannon Smith and her zeal for values. As a staff member of the Lexington Advertiser, I would have become embroiled in civil rights with Hazel. Her complete bio is found online at www.journal of Mississippi History written by Newman, Mark, “Hazel Brannon Smith and Holmes County, Mississippi, 1936-1964: The Making of a Pulitzer Prize Winner,” Journal of Mississippi History 54 (February 1992), pp. 59-87.

The summer I received the invitation was 1954 and during the following year as I struggled with 150 students Hazel Brannon Smith struggled with the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public schools. She stood alone while white merchants and citizens boycotted her newspaper.

By 1964, ten years after my invitation to join her staff, Hazel Brannon Smith became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials expressing her strong opinions. The last edition of the Lexington Advertiser was printed in 1983. She won the Fannie Lou Hamer award in 1993 and died May 1994.

I often think of the exciting and dangerous ride I would have had with Hazel Brannon Smith. Would I have stayed and fought alongside her? Could I have coped with the burning cross in her yard? The anger and meanness of the citizens? I had no strong political opinions but I agreed with many of her beliefs. I would have witnessed zeal and heartbreak and courage in one woman. I would have had the best mentor anyone could have wished for.

Now the Mississippi Legislature has honored Hazel Brannon Smith with Resolution 83 for her courage in the heat of adversity. Look online at the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS, March 31, 2009 for an article by Emily Wagster Pettus reporting the honor and giving some background. I can see Hazel now, standing on a cloud wearing one of her wide-brimmed hats, smiling down on all of us.


Clytie said...

I love your writing. I can almost see Ms. Smith, vivid in her hats, taking on the world. I read through your old entries and thoroughly immersed myself for over an hour. Thank you for sharing my coffee break today.

CabinWriter-- said...

Thanks, Clytie! I can't seem to get a rise out of my family. I keep telling them I'm going to be great before I reach 140! You gave me hope. Visit again.